ATLANTIC CITY - Big fighters are passe' in boxing.
With the exception of middleweight champ Sergio Martinez, lighter fighters dominate the sport. The most compelling and exciting bouts usually feature competitors who are nearly small enough to be jockeys or rowing coxswains.
"I think we are absolutely more popular now than the bigger guys," WBA/IBF featherweight champion Yuriorkis Gamboa said through a translator Thursday. "Heavyweight champions like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson were certainly popular in their eras, but that popularity has shifted to us. The heavyweight division is dead. This is our time."
Led by Gamboa (19-0, 15 KOs), six of the boxing's top competitors in the featherweight (126 pounds) and junior-featherweight (122) divisions will be in action tonight in three 12-round fights at Boardwalk Hall's Adrian Phillips Ballroom.
Gamboa, a native of Cuba now living in Miami, will defend his titles against interim WBA super-featherweight (130 pounds) champ Jorge Solis (40-2-2, 29 KOs), of Mexico. Undefeated featherweights Mikey Garcia (24-0, 20 KOs), of Oxnard, Calif., and Matt Remillard (23-0, 13 KOs), of Manchester, Conn. will fight. Two more unbeaten boxers, New Brunswick prospect Jorge Diaz (15-0, 9 KOs) and Philadelphia contender Teon Kennedy (16-0-1, 7 KOs) will meet in a junior-featherweight bout.
The featherweight division may be the deepest in boxing. Gamboa and fellow champions Juan Manuel Lopez (30-0, 27 KOs) and Chris John (44-0-2, 22 KOs) are all considered potential superstars. Aside from a Floyd Mayweather, Jr.-Manny Pacquaio duel, a Gamboa-Lopez fight is the one most experts and fans would most like to see.
Both Garcia and Remillard are ranked in the top five by the various sanctioning bodies.
"I'd rather be in this division than any other one because I have the potential to compete against the best lighter-weight fighters in the world," Garcia said Thursday. "That's what makes this such a big fight for Matt and myself. The winner will be elevated even higher in the division and hopefully give him a title shot."
Other lighter weight classes also feature some of boxing's most talented fighters. Six of the top 10 fighters in Yahoo! Sports' latest boxing poll weigh between 118 (bantamweight champ Nonito Donaire) and 147 (welterweights Mayweather and Pacquiao).
Wladimir Klitschko is the only heavyweight listed.
"Manny deserves a lot of credit for our popularity," Gamboa said. "He started his career at a much lower weight (he won the first of his eight world titles as a 112-pound flyweight) and that opened the door for the rest of us."
Don't look for any of tonight's competitors to follow Pacquiao's lead and move up in weight, however. In fact, Solis is dropping a division in a bid to upset Gamboa.
Solis easily made the 126-pound weight limit Friday, despite the temptations that come with his out-of-the-ring business. He grew up working at his family's fried taco stands in Guadalajara, Mexico, and owns his own stand that he takes to swap meets and sets up on street corners when he's not in training.
"They're very good," Solis said with a smile through a translator. "We have all different kinds, but they usually have potatoes, cole slaw and cheese in them. I sell them for a dollar. I didn't eat any while I was training for this fight, though. I even hired a nutrionist this time."
The other five fighters also had no trouble making weight, mostly because they don't allow themselves to get too heavy between fights.
Kennedy, who is one or two wins away from challenging for a 122-pound belt, never allows himself to gain more than 15 pounds. He relaxed that rule just once about a year ago, when he stepped on a scale just after the Christmas holiday.
"I woke up one day and weighed 150," Kennedy said Thursday with a laugh. "The weight came off surprisingly easy, but I don't want to make that mistake again. I want to stay in the lower weights because the smaller guys are coming back and I want to be a part of it."
Gamboa has no plans on moving up beyond another weight class or two, mainly because his family tree features a lot of skinny branches.
His brother Yeoelvis Gamboa (4-0, 2 KOs) fights as a 135-pound lightweight. His father, Carlos Gamboa, fought as a 130-pound amateur.
"Everyone in my family is about the same size," Yuriorkis Gamboa said. "You won't find any 250-pound Gamboas walking around."
Punchlines: Five other fights are on the Top Rank card, including a four-round heavyweight bout between NFL safety Tommy Zbikowski (2-0, 2 KOs) and Caleb Grummet (0-0-1), of Lake Odessa, Mich. ... Gamboa-Solis and Garcia-Remillard will be shown on HBO's "Boxing After Dark," starting at 9:45 p.m. ... Results from Friday's weigh-in: Gamboa 126, Solis 125, Garcia 125, Remillard 125, Diaz 122 and Kennedy 122. ... Doors to the Ballroom open at 6:15 p.m. with the first undercard fight slated for 6:45 p.m. ... Tickets ($50-$200) are available at Bally's Atlantic City, Caesars Atlantic City, Boardwalk Hall and online at pressofac.com/tickets.
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